This week, we have another amazing TFAS alumnus on the Liberty + Leadership Podcast: former special assistant to the President and current principal at BGR Government Affairs, Joseph Lai ’01, PPF ’07. Joe serves on the TFAS Board of Regents and is an alumnus of the TFAS Public Policy + Economics program. He was also a member of the inaugural class of TFAS Public Policy Fellows in 2007. Prior to his time at the White House, Joe worked in the U.S. Senate for more than a decade, most recently as legislative director to Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi. In this week’s episode, Roger and Joe discuss what it’s like to work in the White House, his time on Capitol Hill and why you should never lunch alone. The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is hosted by TFAS President Roger Ream and produced by kglobal. If you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org.
The transcript below is lightly edited for clarity.
Kylee Zempel [00:00:00] This is Kylee Zempel, assistant editor at The Federalist and 2017 alumna of the TFAS program in Washington, D.C., and you’re listening to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast.
Roger Ream [00:00:12] Hello and welcome. I’m Roger Ream and this is the Liberty + Leadership Podcast, a conversation with TFAS alumni who are making a real impact in politics, public policy, government, business, philanthropy, law and the media. Today, I’m excited to welcome Joe Lai, a 2001 alumnus of the TFAS Economics + Public Policy program and a member of the inaugural class of TFAS Public Policy Fellows in 2007. Joe first came to D.C. to participate in the TFAS program during his undergraduate career at the University of California at Berkeley. He later earned a Master of Arts from Yale University. Joe is a principal at BGR Government Affairs, where he focuses on commerce, financial services, international trade and defense issues. An expert on Senate rules and procedures, Joe served at the White House as a special assistant to the President for legislative affairs from 2017 to 2019. Prior to joining the White House, Joe worked in the U.S. Senate for more than a decade, most recently as legislative director for Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi. Joe was elected in 2020 to serve on the TFAS Board of Regents. Welcome to the show, Joe.
Joe Lai [00:01:34] Great. Good to be with you.
Roger Ream [00:01:35] Well, let me begin, if I could, from how you first heard about TFAS when you were a student back at Berkeley. What brought it to your attention?
Joe Lai [00:01:43] Well, Roger, I was just thinking about this when I was in the car heading over here. It’s great to be with you in person after so many months. I did TFAS back in 2001, and that was the summer before 9/11. If you think about all the developments in terms of technology and things, that was before the advent of the iPhone, so we’re still using little flip phones at the time. I was a sophomore in college. One day I was just thinking, “What am I going to do this summer?” I went to my computer (it was a desktop), and I went to a commonly used search engine. This is before Google existed, so I went to Yahoo and punched in “summer internships Washington, D.C.,” and TFAS was the first link on the search results. I think you were already using the “live, learn and intern” slogan at the time, and I clicked on it. I had no idea what TFAS was. I just was looking for a Washington, D.C., internship and clicked on it and that’s how I got started on a journey that’s been 20+ years. In terms of my career, it changed my life that one night when I decided to go on to Yahoo to do a search for summer internships. To give you a little bit of context about who I was way back then when I was 21 years old, just turned 21 – my parents were immigrants from Hong Kong. I’m the first to go to college, let alone graduate from high school. And in that process, I had no idea about how anything really worked in Washington or in the United States. I studied it and knew it from the textbooks; I had no idea there was a completely different universe in Washington. And it was that summer, or TFAS, that really transformed my life.
Roger Ream [00:03:44] Well, you talk about finding us on a Yahoo search engine. It was interesting because not long before 2001, I recall a woman in my office coming in and telling me there’s something out there called the World Wide Web and we needed to get a website. We were, at the time, instead of TFAS, we’re using FAS to describe ourselves. But FAS.org had been taken. So we adopted TFAS and we captured the website DCinternships.org, which really helped us in terms of coming up first in a search engine. So it was fortuitous for us that you found us and came our way because not only were you a great student in the program, but even just an outstanding volunteer for us as well over the years. Well, it’s interesting that you said you were the first in your family to graduate from high school, go to a great school like Berkeley, and then on to get a master’s at Yale. What was that like to be the trendsetter for your family and go to college?
Joe Lai [00:04:48] Yeah! A lot of people ask me that question, especially as they get to know me. I like to tell a story about my mom, who is a tiger mom. I remember when I first started at the White House, during my time there, I called my mom right before Inauguration Day. I told her, “Mom, mom, mom, mom, mom! I’m going to work at the White House for the president!” And she says, “Oh, that’s great. Well, let me know one day when you get to meet the president and get back to me.” A couple weeks later, I called my mom and I was like, “Mom, mom, mom, I got to meet the president. And he knows my name now, and he says hi when I walk down the hall, he remembers me.” She’s like, “Oh okay, well that’s good. Well, let me know when you get to ride in the motorcade with him.” And then I called her, you know, “So mom, I got to ride in the motorcade.” And she’s like, “Oh, that’s good. Well let me know when you ever get to ride on Air Force One.” And finally, I called her once from my first flight on Air Force One, which is a rite of passage for everybody, where you pick up the phone and the operator gets your name and the number and they call your mom for you. And then the operator says, “Please hold for Joseph Lai calling from Air Force One.” So I got connected with my mom on Air Force One. I was like, “Mom, I’m calling from Air Force One!” And there’s just a little silence on the phone, and she’s just like, “When are you going to get married and settle down?” So in short, I’m still —
Roger Ream [00:06:16] Still waiting for that call, right?
Joe Lai [00:06:17] In general, there’s a lot of high expectations from immigrant upbringings. My parents came to the U.S. in the late seventies with essentially nothing and built a very successful small business. And it’s that constant search for new challenges, expansion, intellectual growth that’s really propelled me to pursue my career in Washington.
Roger Ream [00:06:44] Let me ask you one of the things you did, our inaugural Public Policy Fellows program when you were fairly early in your career. It was a little different program then than it is now. But you did that with about 15 other alumni of our programs. It was intended to help with career advancement and leadership. Could you reflect a little on that experience?
Joe Lai [00:07:04] Yeah, I think TFAS is all about bringing people together, bringing lifelong relationships, getting everything started there. It was during our first conference as a Fellow that I met some of my closest friends today. I think of one of my dear friends, Peter Feldman, who’s now a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, CPSC, very, very good personal friend of mine. I met him during that summer engaging in the workshops that we did in Washington, D.C., Annapolis and elsewhere.
Roger Ream [00:07:36] Now, you chose to begin your career going on Capitol Hill and working for a number of senators and on a number of different issues. There’s concern around the country, obviously, and you see it all the time that Congress doesn’t function very well, that it’s not only the partisan divides which have always been there, but it just seems like power has shifted more and more to the executive branch, to the agencies running the show. But you’re able to accomplish some things in the Senate. Could you reflect on your experience there and whether you think Congress could improve the way it operates?
Joe Lai [00:08:12] Yeah, I think — Roger, I think that’s a great, great question, especially amid everything that’s going on in society and what’s on the news today. I fundamentally believe that our founding fathers knew what they were doing in creating three separate branches of government co-equal. Capitol Hill continues to perform that function there in terms of robust oversight, controlling the purse strings most of the time and ensuring that we get laws passed when we need to. You’re absolutely right- in the last 100, 150 years, the executive branch has gained a lot of power. But Congress has always been there acting on behalf of the American people to keep the executive branch in check. And I do believe that that will continue.
Roger Ream [00:09:08] You just made a decision to go work in the executive branch. Was that out of a sense of frustration or just, hey, here’s an opportunity to really make a lasting difference through the policies that you could work on in the White House because you were in the legislative affairs area?
Joe Lai [00:09:24] Going into 2016, 2017, I had spent about 15 years working on and off Capitol Hill, and I saw an opportunity to serve in January of 2017. When I got the call that the president had wanted me to come aboard his team, I felt a compelling motivation to serve. We had a president who at that point had a mandate from the American people but did not have deep relationships with the leading Republican members of the Senate, Democratic members of the Senate. Based on my personal contacts and experience on Capitol Hill, I felt that I was going to be in a good position to help be a liaison, a bridge between Senate Republicans, Senate Democrats and the president. It wasn’t always the easiest job. There are a lot of misunderstandings. Some things could have been handled a little bit better on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. But I’m really proud of the things that I helped the last administration accomplish. Everything from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, renegotiating and making the NAFTA agreement better, which ended up as the USMCA, the U.S. Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Roger Ream [00:10:50] Now the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. Looking back now, that obviously spurred tremendous economic growth in our country. We saw growth rates go up considerably, it impacted federal revenues and the deficit and has us in a much better position today, even though we’re seeing a slowdown with inflation. What was that like? What was the key to successfully getting that enacted?
Joe Lai [00:11:19] One of the greatest pleasures and honors during my time at the White House was working with real economic legends out there. Everybody from Larry Kudlow, Gary Cohn and members of the National Economic Council, Council of Economic Advisors. Many of these individuals, especially some of the academics, they were the same individuals that came in to lecture at TFAS when I was a student 20, 21 years ago. I was just living the dream there, interacting with all of these great economic free market, pro-growth legends out there. I think about Art Laffer and spending time and talking to him and getting advice from him on how to explain free market economics to people on Capitol Hill.
Roger Ream [00:12:07] Yeah, Art Laffer has been someone we’ve had come speak to our students and he’s very good and very entertaining at the same time, and he knows his stuff.
Joe Lai [00:12:14] He’s incredible. He’s incredible. And I just remember you lining up so many great speakers during my summer at TFAS and in subsequent conferences and it has been stuck with me all these years.
Roger Ream [00:12:29] Now it was just last year at our annual dinner, we had Senator Dan Sullivan there as the recipient of our Congressional Leadership Award. You were kind enough to present that to him at the dinner. I was so impressed with him. It was the first time I met Senator Sullivan from Alaska, he has quite a background. How’d you get to know him?
Joe Lai [00:12:50] Senator Sullivan serves on some key committees that I was responsible for, especially in terms of key economic policies and international trade policies facing our country. I worked really closely with him on a daily basis during my time at the White House to make sure that our national security policies, our trade policies are completely aligned since Alaska plays a pivotal role in the Asia-Pacific region.
Roger Ream [00:13:21] Yeah. It was great to have you participate and present the award to him at our dinner. It was wonderful to have an alumnus of our program do something like that.
Joe Lai [00:13:28] It was absolutely my pleasure. Senator Sullivan has this great background that I think all United States senators absolutely need, which is he served in the military. He understands the national security side. He went to some incredible universities and has that intellectual basis, and was also a business leader himself. So having that full experience makes him a very, very strong leader. I think his commitment to free markets, individual liberty and the rule of law, those three things just make him a great leader as well. I hope that TFAS can continue that relationship with him going forward.
Roger Ream [00:14:09] Well, those you mentioned are core values we teach: individual liberty, the rule of law, free market economics, all of which lead to human flourishing. Could we talk a little bit about leadership? You’ve had the chance in your career to work with some great leaders. You yourself have been in a leadership position many times. What do you think makes a good leader that you’ve seen in your career?
Joe Lai [00:14:36] I think leadership means being honest about the truth, honest about facts, and being able to communicate that to the people you’re working for, you’re advising. I think about Lee Atwater, the great political legend had this phrase. He said, “I don’t want allies, I don’t want flunkies. I don’t want people just to say yes. And when everybody says yes because they’re scared of the boss, that’s not a good thing.” In my time on Capitol Hill and at the White House, strong leaders actually want to hear contrary opinions. They want to hear what people actually think. So I think one of the surest signs of leadership is being confident in yourself to tell the truth, tell people what they think when they’re asking you for your opinion. When you’re asking me for my opinion about something, I’m going to tell you what I think, not what I think you want to hear.
Roger Ream [00:15:35] Yeah, yeah. There’s a saying, fake it till you make it, which I think is just an awful, awful expression for how to get ahead in your career and that studying and learning and obtaining knowledge is the way to be a good leader.
Joe Lai [00:15:51] You know, Roger, I was just thinking about this. In my time at the White House, you have to think about the time, the age you’re living in. You have to put yourself in historical context. There’s no backstop. There’s nobody who’s going to be cleaning up your mistakes when you’re giving your opinion to your boss on the matter. I may be in a lower level meeting or a mid-level meeting, but there’s no backstop. There’s nobody to hide behind. That’s when you have to step up and you have to really think about, “Where am I? Where am I in history? Where am I relative to all the fundamental principles that I believe in that brought me to Washington?” Those are the things that used to go through my mind all the time. And it’s a really humbling feeling.
Roger Ream [00:16:39] Did you have the opportunity in school to study history?
Joe Lai [00:16:42] I was a history major.
Roger Ream [00:16:43] Okay. I wasn’t aware of that.
Joe Lai [00:16:44] I thought I was going to be a history professor all my life, including my graduate school days at Yale. Quickly I realized that everything I wanted to write about was already written. I ended up coming to Washington to pursue the path of public policy instead.
Roger Ream [00:17:06] Well, at least your background in history is what has helped you be that kind of leader who understands where they are at that particular time. Getting a little more into this idea of leadership, in the challenges you faced in your career – you obviously had decisions to make of moving from one office to another one, from Congress to the White House. What kind of advice do you give young people? I had lunch with six students yesterday who when asked what they want to get out of the summer, for all six it had something to do with trying to come to a better understanding of what career to pursue. These students were interested in international affairs, but they weren’t sure, “Do I want to go into a career in intelligence or diplomacy or a private sector organization, public service?” How would you advise young people who are facing those decisions in the coming few years as to how to go about pursuing a career in government or public service or in those fields?
Joe Lai [00:18:12] You know, fundamentally, Roger, I think you taught me this during — you probably don’t remember this, but you gave the welcome speech on my first day when we moved into the old Georgetown campus. You talked about getting out there, not having lunch alone, meeting people, always asking questions, asking people for advice, asking them who else to talk to and expanding your network. When you meet those people that you’ve recommended to me, I’m going to ask them who else I should talk to. So I think it’s that constant growth of your network and asking questions about “How did you get here? What are the lessons learned? What lessons do you have for me?” I think that question process, that intellectual curiosity is the biggest piece of advice that I can encourage young people now to think about, is to get out and about, not to sit in their rooms, not sitting in front of their computer all day, getting out, networking face to face, human to human. That’s going to get you all the core knowledge and all the facts and all the context for you to make the right decisions.
Roger Ream [00:19:18] Well, I think you’ve touched on something, Joe, that’s very important. Our theme at TFAS recently has really focused on courageous leadership, but you really have to break that down. I do think curiosity is a big part of that. I don’t remember saying it in the orientation speech in 2001, but it’s something we emphasize this year at our orientation: be curious. Let’s say you sit down at a table with strangers for dinner, it’s pretty quickly determined who’s curious and who isn’t at that table by the questions that are asked in the conversation. And so we do encourage students all the time to be curious. So I’m glad to hear your curiosity.
Joe Lai [00:20:01] Curiosity means asking questions. It’s not just about talking about yourself. It’s asking questions, but being an excellent listener, engaged in and processing all the data, all the people that you’re meeting, it’s that networking skill that has to be developed, it’s like a muscle. You have to keep developing it and you have to get out there. That’s just so valuable. I think TFAS really taught me about that, especially through our Fellows program in terms of some of the professional development skills and techniques that TFAS provided.
Roger Ream [00:20:35] Love this expression that I once heard from someone who said, “God designed us with two ears and one mouth, and we should use them proportionally.” I tell that to students – you learn a lot more from listening than hearing yourself talk. You’re now with BGR government relations. You probably have a variety of clients who focus on the key issue areas I mentioned earlier: international trade, financial affairs. What is that like? With the Hill and public service, working for a company that’s trying to help their clients navigate the various hurdles and regulatory barriers and challenges of public policy in Washington.
Joe Lai [00:21:16] I’m really proud of my time at BGR. I left the White House in 2019 and joined the BGR Group that fall. At BGR today, I work with U.S. companies and international companies to help create a pro-growth economic environment in the U.S. that’s about fostering entrepreneurship, innovation and capital formation, getting things done out there. And those are, if you really think about those core things, it really goes back to some of the academic foundations that we learned as students at TFAS, which was free market economics; the rule of law; a predictable, transparent regulatory system; those core principles. I still expound those today as a private sector consultant.
Roger Ream [00:22:14] In 1990, The Fund for American Studies started a program in business and government affairs. The people that started it were responding to the fact that lobbying was a dirty word, but it’s mostly because of a connotation that isn’t really fair, that lobbying is really providing information to lawmakers. I know members of Congress who’ve told our students lobbyists perform a very important task of providing information so they can make informed votes. They can sort through whether information they’re getting is heavily biased in one direction or another. But, you know, I still think we haven’t overcome this bias that lobbying is a terrible thing. Have you encountered that?
Joe Lai [00:23:01] Yeah, the days of the dark smoky rooms where there are back deals over a cocktail, those days are long gone. I would say the value of private sector consultants like me, advocates like me today, is demystifying what’s going on in Washington. We just talked about the executive branch. The executive branch has regulations and processes that are not transparent, that people don’t understand at all outside of D.C. Sometimes I don’t even understand them. Somebody has to explain that to a job creator in Silicon Valley, to a manufacturing company in New Hampshire or Ohio, someone has to explain that to all these small business, medium-sized business and big businesses that have to make decisions on massive investments and how to grow when they don’t understand what’s going on in Washington, where sometimes you have unelected officials and processes that aren’t fully published and transparent. So that’s what I see my job as: demystifying Washington for people outside of the Beltway.
Roger Ream [00:24:08] One area that you’ve focused on and you worked on successfully in the White House was the area of international trade. That is an area that really interests me, and I’ve always been a strong, unabashed free trader and believing that trade benefits this country and benefits the world and raises living standards around the world. But it has been a challenging issue for maybe the last five or six years. Many people have been quick to try to promote economic growth through creating barriers to trade. But where do you think we are on that issue of international trade and a belief in free trade? Or do you see us still moving away from that and toward being a more protectionist country after many decades of being the role model for free international trade?
Joe Lai [00:24:58] When I was first a student of TFAS that summer of 2001, it was the beginning of the Bush administration. We had just finished eight years of the Clinton administration, where there is a commitment to globalization and free markets that crossed from a Democratic administration into a Republican administration at the time. What we see today is more of a popular backlash that I believe still continues. It’s up to us as champions for free markets to be able to effectively explain how free markets make for free people. It’s a real challenge. I think what you’re doing here at TFAS is just so critical to forcing some of these young minds of today to really be exposed to newer ideas. And what I mean by that, and I know this personally, when I was a TFAS student, I came in with no real ideological bent. I wasn’t a free market person. I wasn’t any person. I was just a person who wanted an internship in Washington, D.C., who found you on Yahoo! And through my time at TFAS and in subsequent leadership programs, I really understood what free markets mean. I understood what free markets mean relative to socialism, what that meant to economic growth in Eastern Europe, Western Europe after World War II, what that means to the incredible economic miracle in South Korea after the Korean War. So that’s what motivates me today. That’s what I hope that future generations of students at TFAS will understand and be able to communicate when they get out into the private sector beyond Washington, D.C.
Roger Ream [00:26:55] You’ll be happy to hear the students I had lunch with yesterday, they’re two weeks into the program this summer, and they were talking about what they were learning and studying in their economics class, and they were talking about having looked at the Index of Economic Freedom and learning that it’s ideas and institutions that matter more than natural resources or the size of the population or technology in terms of determining whether a country’s prosperous or not. So they’re still focused on those issues internationally. I feel in a way that the generation before me and my generation, we grew up with Germany being divided in half between the communists and the free world. And that was just that stark example, like you mentioned, the Korean Peninsula, where you can see right in front of you the freer the country, the more prosperous it is, the economic growth. You read that people in South Korea are several inches taller on average now than people in North Korea. You look at the satellite map at night and South Korea is this bastion of light and North Korea is in darkness. I mean, those examples are there, but we have to get them in front of students. I feel like when we do present these things to students, they learn very quickly. So I think it’s great that you got those lessons when you did TFAS as well.
Joe Lai [00:28:14] It stuck with me for 20+ years, Roger.
Roger Ream [00:28:16] Now, you came from Berkeley and you studied history at Berkeley. You know, Berkeley has a reputation, but we do work with some professors at Berkeley who are solidly for these ideas of individual liberty, the rule of law and free markets. I’m curious what your Berkeley experience was overall. You probably learned a lot and it was a good experience.
Joe Lai [00:28:37] You know, Berkeley is a large school. There’s a lot of intellectual diversity there. However, it’s easy to get into groupthink out in California. I came back from my summer in Washington, D.C., with TFAS, and once I got back to Berkeley, I started asking myself, I didn’t really verbalize it to my professors, but I started thinking about ideas a little bit differently. I started thinking about intellectually challenging my professor. I was like, “Did he get it right about X, Y and Z?” So I will say that, you know, it’s incredible. I had an incredible experience in California as an undergraduate combined with some of the more refined, critical questions that TFAS taught me to ask about myself that ultimately made me a better public policy leader today.
Roger Ream [00:29:35] Well, I appreciate all the credit you’re giving to TFAS, but you obviously were a critical thinker when you came, just very intelligent. If we played a role in helping spark some of that, that’s what we hope for. We try to do this with all the students here in the summer – we tell them to ask questions, be critical thinkers. Don’t accept everything you hear at face value. So that’s wonderful to hear. One question I’d like to ask as we close these Liberty + Leadership Podcasts is similar to, in a way, what we’ve talked about, but advice you give to young people today as they go through school and prepare to start a career. And I might, because of what we’ve already said, put it this way: are you optimistic about the future and the world our generation will be leaving for future generations? Are you a pessimist? How do you put yourself on that scale?
Joe Lai [00:30:29] That’s a great question, Roger. I was actually just thinking about that the other day when I was going to a meeting downtown. I was in an Uber stopped in traffic for quite some time, and I was looking across the street, and I was like, “Why are we stopped?” And I saw a presidential or vice presidential motorcade roll by. I was just thinking to myself, how many places are there in the world where not too long ago somebody can be inside the motorcade with everybody rolling around. And then not too long afterwards, you’re on the outside just working in the private sector, doing your thing. I think that’s just representative of how our system does work. The system does function. It does self-correct over time. That’s why I am very optimistic about things. A lot of people will have disagreements about whether or not the 2020 election should have gone a certain way or whether it was stolen or not stolen. But what we do know is that we have an upcoming midterm election this fall that’s largely reacting to a lot of the economic policies that have been pursued over the last two years. Some voters will speak on whether or not things like energy and crime and other things are going to matter. But the process does work. I think we’ll see that this fall, the midterms, and we’ll see that again in 2024.
Roger Ream [00:32:01] Well, that was very well said, and I don’t think I can think of anything more we should talk about, given that great statement of yours and that optimistic outlook. My guest today has been Joe Lai of BGR Government Relations, a TFAS alumnus from 2001 and a newly elected member of our Board of Regents. I’d like to thank you for joining us. Joe, I’d like to thank you for being our guest today. Thank you for listening to the Liberty + Leadership Podcast. Please don’t forget to subscribe, download, like or share the show on Apple, Spotify or YouTube or wherever you listen to your podcasts. If you like this episode, I ask you to rate and review it. And if you have a comment or question for the show, please drop us an email at podcast@TFAS.org. The Liberty + Leadership Podcast is produced at kglobal Studios in Washington, D.C. I’m your host Roger Ream, and until next time, show courage in things large and small.
About the Podcast
TFAS has reached more than 46,000 students and professionals through academic programs, fellowships and seminars. Representing more than 140 countries, TFAS alumni are courageous leaders throughout the world forging careers in politics, government, public policy, business, philanthropy, law and the media.
Join TFAS President Roger Ream ’76 as he reconnects with these outstanding alumni to share experiences, swap career stories, and find out what makes their leadership journey unique. With prominent congressmen, judges and journalists among the mix, each episode is sure to excite your interest in what makes TFAS special.
If you have a comment or question for the show, please email podcast@TFAS.org.
View future episodes and subscribe at TFAS.org/podcast.